St. Louis Arch

August 8, 2009


Okay, we are now heading towards St. Louis, when all of a sudden the interstate we are on is closed for construction, and we take a surprisingly well marked detour. The detour, I suspect takes you along one of the beltways to another one of the interstates going through St. Louis. When they say road work, we looked down as we went over on the overpass, and you could not see road, just tons of construction equipment and maybe a dirt road bed. Serious work going on there. We were glad to also see the turns on the detour were well marked all the way into downtown. We exited down by downtown, and following the instructions on the Arch brochure, you go forwards a block or two, then make a left to cross over the interstate, which sets you up to look at the arch through a nice greenspace, then another left, then a right and you come to the official parking area.

Parking for the St. Louis Arch is in a garage just north of the Arch itself. Parking here is reasonable, at $6, and I noteice an interesting tactic. Parking is a flat $6 if your stay is under 8 hours, and switches to a more expensive hourly scale if you park longer than that. The idea must be to keep parking reasonable for the tourists, while discouraging businessmen from parking here. We pull into the garage and score a "Pinch me I'm dreaming quality" parking space located right next to the stairs. We park, and just one flight of stairs up and we are on the border of the park that surrounds the Arch. We take a few seconds to get our bearings then start walking down a shaded trail cooled courtesy of nature's air conditioning and come out into the much warner green.

The Gateway Arch, or the Jefferson Memorial to Westward Expansion, or Gateway to the West, whatever you call it is a silver metallic 630' arch built in St. Louis's riverfront park. Sometimes referred to as a giant croquet wicket, an image not lost on the people who created the American Roadtrip reality game this summer. Park enthusiasts sometimes imagine it as a giant Skycoaster, as some of the dual Skycoasters are described as looking like the St. Louis Arch. Eric wonders if anybody has ever flown a plane through the arch. Anyway the two legs of the arch appear to sink right down into the ground surrounded by a concrete pad that more or less serves as the front porch. Just inward of the two legs, ramps lead down under the green into the underground visitor center. Today, long lines stretched from the visitor center wrapped around the leg and continued into the park. Ugh.

I stand in line while Eric does some scouting work. While Eric is away, I notice the group ahead of us is already holding their tickets. I chat them up and learn the ticket sales are at a non descript carnival trailer along the edge of the parking garage right as you enter the park, had you used the garage elevators. Eric comes back and reports back that this is merely the line to get into the building. At about this point a park ranger points out there is almost no line at the entrance by the other leg.

Eric and I compare notes, and we head back to the parking garage, specifically to the carnival trailer, and I agree, nothing about it screams "Stop here for tickets" Let's see the tram to the top is $10, and we could bundle it with one or two movies, or a riverboat cruise. We decide on just the basic tram ride, and soon have tickets. As an advisory, the trailer is a credit card only operation. Okay, a check of watches reveals it to be about 1, our tickets are printed for 2:40, using their timed entry system. We take the time to return to our car to get some refreshments, a move I'm sure did not endear us to any of the people who saw us heading to the car and though they had just scored prime parking.

A bit later, we headed back up the stairs, down the shaded trail, and we headed over to the other leg of the arch. By this time the rangers had pretty much gotten the two lines evened out. For us the line streched back up the ramp and had just barely started to circle the leg of the arch. We heard somebody ask a ranger how long it would take, and he said about 30 minutes. The ranger knew what we was talking about as it took 30-40 minutes to get inside. The problem lies about halfway down the entrance ramp right after you go inside the doors. At that point they have installed, as they call it "An airport style security checkpoint". That isn't bad by itself, what is bad is they only have one metal detector and one baggage scanner at each of the two entrances. That and they have the system set so tight, you have to take off your belt, empty out your pockets, as well as do most of the other stuff you have to do at airports. At least they let you keep your shoes on.

Halfway down the ramp, there are three sets of double doors, what they have effectively done is make one set a dedicated exit, another set the dedicated entrance, and the middle set is barricaded off, but not locked, this is how the rangers get in and out. The middle set isn't that useful anyway because just inside the doors, the one wide ramp splits into two smaller ramps that go down the side. This is to leave room in the center for the ramp that goes down from the visitor center to the tram station. Okay, once past security we head down the rest of the ramp into the visitors center. We can see another queue of people lining the ramps down to the tram station. I take a moment to ask the ranger maning the podium at the top of the ramp how early should we return, and he indicates we can line up 5 minutes before our assigned time slot. This means we have about an hour to explore.

The visitors center is a rectangular room situated between the two entryways from the park below. The entryways themselves flank the ramps down to the tram stations that take you to the top of the arch. These entryways are in the center of the north and south sides of the visitor center. Set in the center of the room is the information desk, which is also your guest services. We stop at the visitor center to get park guides, I chuckle at the sign "Please take ONE guide per family" Yeah, right. Getting oriented to the vistor center, starting at the north entrance, you head east and you see the main gift shop, then the women's restroom, then you turn to go down the east wall. The east side is dominated by the ticketing center. I'm not sure what that trailer is out in the parking lot now, becuase this is a massive ticket center, with a sizeable queue waiting for it. Above the windows signs describe each attraction, tell you how much time to allow, and a little video screen by each attraction description tells you what time slot they are currently selling. I note the tram tour is up to 3:10, and says "Allow 60-90 minutes". Of interest sitting next to the ticket center is a mock up of a tram car. This is placed here as a combination exhibit, photo opportunity, and a test seat. The capsules are incredibly small and compact, this will allow you to see if you can fit insdie and after getting inside if you have any claustrophobia issues. They should allow you to close the doors on the test car, that might really freak some people with claustrophobia out.

Anyway, continuing along from the ticket center, in the south east corner is the men's room, then on the southern side is another store, once which deals in stuff like coffee, cheese, candy, almost like an old time store. I don't quite gets its purpose here, but it was crowded inside.

Immediately to the west of the entrance ramps are two auditoriums, the one to the north is a regular theatre showing a documentary movie on the builidng of the arch, the one to the south is an IMAX theatre showing the Lewis and Clark IMAX movie. Either movie is $7 extra, and timed tickets are required. Heading west, a ranger station is tucked into a corner, and scattered in the visitor center are some drink vending machines. The machines sell 12 oz bottled water or 12 oz canned drinks for $1.25. That may seem high, but while we were there we saw the machines being restocked three times.

To the west of the visitor center is the museum. The museum is free, okay there is some fee to use the national park that was apparently included in our tram tour tickets, but they don't check those tickets on your way in, instead there is an honor box at the information desk for the fee. Fee + non enforcement = essentially free. Anyway the museum endeavors to tell the story of our exploration, starting with the indian lands that would form the west. It is actually a very large museum, and owing to the way you enter, it seems to spread out all around you from your commanding post by a statue of Jefferson in the entryway. I'm not sure if it is intentional but as you go deeper into the museum you keep going down a few steps here and there, then you start going up stairs here and there. The effect is to create defined zones for exhibits, as well as to create seat walls. Starting at the northwest, the story starts with dealings with the indians, treaties and treaty medals, and non ashmedly saying the treaties would be less than genuine and meant to deceive the indians. Some parts of the museum even use audio animatronics to tell the story, sure there aren't Disney quality, but they are a nice touch. As you move to the south you move through history until by the time you hit the south end there is the token exhbit on space exploration. The museum includes many stuffed animals ("Please don't pet the animals, only real animals can regrow fur:), there is a conestoga wagon (The semi truck of the day), a nice size teepee, a big ships wheel. A military display of anicent battle flags and ammo. The room that has an exhibit on America's pastime, baseball, almost seems out of place. I noted they also have several ranger guided tours and activities going on. We explored the museum to while away the time until our tour.

At around 2:30 we headed to our assigned tram station ramp, that is the South ramp. We see the 2:30 group go in, and then all of us for the 2:40 group immediately form a line. The ranger takes immediate objection to this. "You can't line up here, its a fire hazard" Oky, so we turn to one another and okay we aren't in line we are mingling here. Somehow that is acceptable, even though its the same thing. The real fire hazard is effectively half the exits are blocked by security equipment. Okay, magically at 2:35 it isn't a fire hazard to form a line, I hate arbitrary BS rules. At 2:40 it is time for our tram ride, or so we think. What happens is a big game of Hurry Up and Wait.

At 2:40, tickets are torn and we are admitted to the upper half of the ramp. At this point, we stand still for about 10 minutes. (2:50) Then we advance again to the lower half of the ramp, at this point the rangers go down the line and start assigning seats to help faciliatate the boarding process. You are handed a plastic card that is color coded for your group, and has your seating assignment printed on it. This takes up part of the time, but not all of it as you essentially wait here another 10 minutes, then (3:00) we are admitted through the turnstile and told to move all the way into the next room. The room has some exhbiits on westward exploration obtensibly to help kill time so you don't realize you are still waiting in line. The main purpose of this room however, is that as you enter the room, they group you by family, pose you for a grouo photo, and hand you a card on the hopes of selling you a souvenir photo on your way out. Again 10 minutes go by (3:10) and we are permitted to proceed, we are called to leave this room by capsule number, startng at 8 and working to 1. When your number is called, you can go down a set of stairs to the actual tram station. At the bottom, they collect the plastic boarding cards as you pass the operators console. Past the console there is a stairway running alonside the tram, the purprose of this is each capsule is a bit lower than the last. There is a railing down the center of the stairs, and you are asked to go down to your capsule but stay behind the center railing.

Once everybody is positioned. a ranger takes a microhone hidden next to car 4 and welcomes you. In additon to the safety spiel, you get the cliffs notes version of the history of the arch. Built in 1963, opened in 1967, design was the winner of hundereds of designs submitted for a Westward expaqnsion monument. Key point was the designers always envisioned an observation area at the top, the problem was getting people up there, as no elevator system of the day could negotaite the curves the arch presented, as well as the fact the elevator system had to be totally concealed within the arch structure. A guy named Bowser created the present day capsule tram, a system described as part elevator, part train, part amusement park ride. Part elevator because it gets you to the top and back down, part train as there are eight capsules that are linked together and move like a train on a rail, and part amusement park ride becuase the capsules can sense when they are 5 or more degrees off level, and then will mechanically rotate to maintain a level upright position to within 5 degrees, similar in design to a ferris wheel. In fact I think the same basic system provides the mechanical leveling of the tubs on the London Eye. Anyway, they stress to us the fact the capsules are only 4' high. I knew when I looked at the doorway ahead of me it looked impossibly small, but I fugured there must be a trick, as I don't remember the doors being that small, but then last time I was in the arch was 20-25 years ago, I think. After the introductory speil, they show a short video and then the tram arrives.

I think they should mount a camera above the tram doors and capture the looks of the faces of the oncoming riders as they see first the outer doors in the solid wall open up, and then the inner doors of the capsules themselves open. When people first see the teeny tiny capsules, with 5 riders crammed into them, the looks of shock and awe are all around. The people arriving get out and walk up the stairs on the side nearest the tram, then you are allowed to board. Be careful, there is no padding, and not only is the door less than 4' high, you have to step up into it. (Note, there are no ADA accomodations here) Once inside don't straighen up, instead move to one of the five seats. The first two are right next to the door and face inwards, the next two are at an angle, and the fith chair is along the back of the capsule and faces the doors. Once seated, the tub wall is your backrest, and you will be touching legs and arms with the person next to you. Forget personal space here. In effect the 5 chiars are set in a semi circle facing in. There are lights and speakers in the capsule. Then, if your a claustrpohic person, just when it couldn't get any worse the doors close.

They were nice enough to put four small windows in the doors, though part of one is obscured by a decal warning against tampering with the doors. In both loading areas there are little to no lights, but for most of the way up there are work lights on so you can see the emergency stairs and the inside of the hollow arch structure. It is a most unique elevator ride to say the least, and another term I have heard for it is "Clothes Dryer: The Ride". Once at the top, the doors open and you exit out into a congested tiny hallway almost filled with riders waiting to go down. Then its up the stairs past the other capsules then a few more stairs to the observation area. The observation room is long and narrow, and is slightly higher in the middle as it follows the curve of the arch. You are told not to stop at the first 2 windows until everybody has had a chance to exit the tram. The windows themselves are tiny, they are not the big large picture windows you might be expecting, instead they are wide, but not very tall. That means you will assuredly have to wait to get near one, then when you get one, owing to the triangular cross section of the arch you have to lean forward on the arch wall , so you actually look down through the window. It has been reported some have a problem with that feeling. On the west side you can see the old courthouse, the old cathedral, the stadiums, and the downtown area, and if you look sharply down, the park under the arch. From the east, its the riverfront that is the prime viewing draw. You are welcome to spend as much time up here as you'd like. So all in all we boarded the tram at 3:20, and got to the top of the arch around 3:25, not bad for a 2:40 timed ticket entry, eh?.

I'm not sure how long we stayed up top, but you figure its probably not more than 10-15 minutes, then as directed you report to a ranger at either tram way, it doesn't matter, when you want to go down. They, actng as host will have you form a line down the center of the observation area if there is no availability on the next train, then once they have unloaded the tram, and those waiting in the loading area have loaded and the tram is away, they start assigning seats like the host in a restaurant assigns tables. You go down to your assigned capsule and wait on the yellow portion of the stairs between capsules for the tram to return and unload, then you can load into it. The ride down is billed as being sightly faster than the ride up, but in between waiting to load, the actual ride down, and walking back to the visitor center, count on another 20 minutes to exit the arch. So just before 4, we have finsihed our 2:40 arch tram tour. When you reach the lower station you exit, and you get the moment I mentioned above the doors open, and you get to see the shock on the newcomers faces. You then exit up the stairs towards the operators console, but instead of taking the same stairs up to the visitor center you instead go down a hallway that runs parallel to the loading area, and then up a stairway at the other end which leads you to the ramp up into the visitors center.

Back in the visitors center, we took care of some needs, bought some souveniers, and then headed out through the north exit which would put us closer to the parking garage. Once back to the car, it was time for more refrshments then we started the drive home to Cincinnati. Our gamble to take I-70 through Indianapolis to try to avoid the construction on I-64 paid off, and after a stop at Red Lobster for dinner, we got to Coasterville, just before midnight. No hotel stay tonight, no sir.


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